Brussels and its partners should urgently stand with democracy activists and support democratic institutions that, together, hold Tunisia’s leaders accountable, Ikram Ben Said and Nicole Rowsell write.
In 2009, while Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime ruled from Tunis, dozens of human rights and feminist defenders gathered in a neighbouring country for a dialogue which couldn’t take place inside Tunisia at the time.
We got together to imagine what a democratic future for Tunisia could entail.
The 2011 revolution gave us, and millions of others, hope for new beginnings.
But today, as we witness the dream of Tunisian democracy collapse, we are calling for value-based international solidarity with Tunisians to keep the flame of progress alive — for Tunisia and the entire Arab region.
Learning from the past
The argument of a bygone era of autocrats, including Ben Ali, has proven false time and time again.
A relationship based on security and centralized power did not address the economic and political aspirations of Tunisians.
Supporting an oppressive regime won’t solve the flow of irregular migration to Europe. Only inclusive and equitable socio-economic development will.
Today, EU member states are falling into the old tropes, seeing Tunisians as the border police and Tunisia as an open-sky prison for migrants.
Investing in Saied’s regime is not an investment in regional stability.
While tapping into real and legitimate frustrations with previous coalition governments’ inability or unwillingness to address economic woes, Saied now faces a choice — manage expectations while accepting painful reforms or risk further economic decline and instability.
To date, his crude consolidation of power has not produced any meaningful policy to address longstanding economic grievances.
His disorderly decisions, hate speech, and racist discourse, sow instability in Tunisia and undermine its relations in Africa and beyond.
It's time for the West to reassert itself
The EU and US should reassert themselves with the Saied regime, balancing confidence with humility — leading with values, acknowledging their colonial past, and conditioning economic aid on the respect of democratic and human rights values.
The $1.9 billion (€1.77bn) IMF loan that Tunisia has been eyeing is presented as a rescue package.
However, the austerity measures and reforms have the potential to harm people, especially the working class and poor communities, and strip the state of its responsibilities to provide a social safety net.
The EU and US have the leverage to direct the IMF to put social and economic rights front and centre in its policy and practice, with assistance conditioned and supporting a path to good governance and democratic institutions.
Reforms are indispensable and urgent.
Their success depends entirely on local ownership and sharing the temporary social cost across the population — a genuine national dialogue, including all political and social actors, is essential.
Recalibrating foreign policy to underwrite democracy
The US has a particular role to play in helping turn the tide. The Biden administration has said that its foreign policy is “centred on the defence of democracy and the protection of human rights.”
At the second Summit for Democracy, President Biden reiterated the need “to continually renew our commitment, continually strengthen our institutions, root out corruption where we find it, seek to build consensus, and reject political violence, give hate and extremism no safe harbour.”
However, the administration’s foreign assistance 2024 budget request sends a concerning message.
Assistance to the Tunisian military, which helped Saied consolidate power, is maintained at past levels, while economic and civil society support is being slashed by 65%.
The US should be transparent about why and how those decisions were made and to whom the assistance is destined so civil society can monitor the funding.
Delayed actions only embolden the Saied regime
As it conditions aid, the US should use routine diplomatic meetings and consultations with civil society actors to laud advances or push Tunisian leaders to do more. This requires renewed political will on the part of Washington, DC.
The US should also accelerate calls for the release of political detainees and respect for human rights protocols to which Tunisia is a signatory while calling out all attacks on freedom of the press and expression.
Muddled or delayed statements deflate Tunisian democracy advocates and embolden the Saied regime to continue with their campaign with impunity.
Next year, Tunisia should hold presidential and local elections.
Tunisian civil society and public independent institutions need support to ensure the polls are transparent and voters have viable political alternatives to consider while feel safe to vote for their choice.
This will require revisions to the current election law, establishment of the constitutional court and re-establishment of genuine independence of the election commission, at a minimum.
The fierce urgency of now
When we first met in 2009, we understood that democracy is not just an aspirational set of values — it is a necessary condition for prosperity and stability.
The policy solution to the long-standing economic grievances and democratic backsliding in Tunisia is not to recycle failed partnerships reminiscent of the Ben Ali era.
It is to urgently stand with democracy activists and support democratic institutions that, together, hold Tunisia’s leaders accountable and help make sure that good governance and democracy deliver for citizens.
This must be done with the fierce urgency of now.
Ikram Ben Said is an award-winning feminist activist, and Nicole Rowsell is an international democracy, governance, and peacebuilding expert and scholar.
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